Gypsies, Trotters and Races: the Rise and Fall of the Rochester Driving Park

 

RDP-driving park map new

We saw in a recent blog post that Dewey Avenue owes its jog at the corner of Driving Park Avenue to a race course that once stood at the intersection.

The Rochester Driving Park was best known for its horse races, but the venue hosted a diverse assortment of events and guests during its almost 30 year existence.

When the Driving Park held its first horse race on August 11, 1874, the facility was billed as the fastest mile track in the United States. It quickly gained fame among race enthusiasts and proved a major draw for both locals and tourists alike.

 

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Inaugural meeting of the Rochester Driving Park, 1874.

During the park’s first week of operation, all the hotels in Rochester were filled to capacity, forcing some race fans to sleep in the open fields near the track. Twenty thousand people had packed the park by its second day to catch a glimpse of renowned trotter, Goldsmith Maid.

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Illustration of the Driving Park’s entrance and one-mile track.

Though for a time the park enjoyed its status as the most famous racetrack in the world, by the 1890s, Rochester’s love affair with the Driving Park had begun to fade, likely due in part to the introduction of a series of anti-betting laws in New York State.

 

 

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A circa 1893 Rochester Driving Park racing form.

Rumours began to circulate that the site was going to be sold and converted into a residential tract. Such gossip gained more currency after the park hosted its last Grand Circuit race in 1895.

The park continued to host non-Circuit horse races along with bicycle races, athletic contests, battle reenactments, circuses and Buffalo Bill’s annual Wild West Show.

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Ad for an upcoming Wild West Show at the Rochester Driving Park. Democrat & Chronicle, July 31, 1895.

A devastating fire in 1899, which caused $20,000 worth of damage and destroyed two of the park’s three stands, did not bode well for those who sought to revive the park’s elite trotter tradition.

Some efforts were nevertheless made to salvage the site.

On Memorial Day in 1900, theDriving Park hosted automobile races-then a novelty- in the attempts to raise funds for the construction of a new grandstand. And in 1902, the park welcomed the Grand Wallace three-ring circus, which boasted “a small army of active, jolly clowns” and “the largest hippo in captivity.”

These last grasps at survival were ultimately for naught. In September 1902, George W. Archer purchased the Rochester Driving Park property at a public auction for 34,750$.

But before the site could be cut up into building lots, it served as the temporary home of a band of Gypsies (Romani) that had come to Rochester from Serbia via Chicago.

Their presence was not welcomed by many in the local community, who petitioned for their removal from the park and accused them of stealing everything from milk cans and mops to shoes and soap. One area resident claimed that one of the Serbians had nabbed his horse.

But while Rochester residents found fault with their new neighbours, they were nevertheless intrigued by their culture and folkways.

On November 9, 1902, almost 10,000 people were drawn to the park to witness the Gypsy camp firsthand. A remark by one of the young sightseers directed towards a three year old Serbian girl performing the “Hoochie-Coochie,” incited a skirmish that developed into a full-scale riot between the Romani and the Rochesterians that wasn’t quelled until a half a dozen police officers were called to the scene.

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The sensational headline appearing in the November 10, 1902 issue of the Democrat and Chronicle.

The Serbians had packed up and left by year’s end and the 200-acre former racetrack plot was divided into the series of streets that now make up the Rochester Driving Park tract.

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The developing Rochester Driving Park Tract, ca 1910. City of Rochester Plat Map, 1910.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on July 18, 2017 at 10:00 am  Comments (3)  

What’s in A Name? : Street Names as Clues to Local History

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked. Well, for one thing, a name may be a convenient entry point to local history. Look up at the street signs. Many are named for people. Who were they? What did they do? Let’s explore by tracking the three individuals for whom Brooks Avenue, Culver Road and Fitzhugh Street are named.

Brooks Avenue is named for Lewis Brooks (ca. 1793-9 August 1877). Originally a manufacturer of wool, he later pursued various mercantile interests, retiring at age 44. He spent the rest of his life managing his real estate holdings and making various charitable bequests. Along with several other Quakers, he erected a rural retreat at what is today the intersection of Brooks Avenue and Genesee Park Boulevard. Brooks was a friend of Susan B. Anthony, who spent several summer vacations and holidays there. Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, fugitive slaves  would find refuge with Brooks on their way to Canada.  He also was an officer in the Rochester City Temperance Society, and served on the first Rochester Common Council (as an alderman from the First Ward). Today his body is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.

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Oliver Culver (1778-1867)

Culver Road and Oliver Street are both named for Oliver Culver (September 24, 1778-February 2, 1867), among the earliest settlers of Rochester, although at the time his home was located in what was then part of Brighton. Born in Connecticut, he arrived to the area from Hartford in 1805, where he built a home and tavern at what is now the corner of Culver Road and East Avenue. The home was expanded in stages until 1818 and still exists as a private residence (later moved to 70 East Boulevard). With assistance from Rochesterville and surrounding communities, Culver helped clear land and construct what is today East Avenue, as well as Culver Road (which was the route he used to access the closest harbor at Irondequoit Bay). He built canal packet boats and lake schooners (including a 47-ton schooner that was drawn to the Bay by a team of 26 oxen) and participated in maritime commerce as far east as Montreal. He was the first Brighton Town Supervisor (1814, later serving additional one-year terms). He also served as a New York State Assemblyman (1820-21), in which capacity he helped establish Monroe County. He was also one of the co-founders of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.  His remains are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.

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Oliver Culver House, 70 East Boulevard

Fitzhugh Street was originally much longer, running from Allen Street south to Edinburgh Street (in Corn Hill). Today, part of it has been displaced by the Civic Center Garage. The street was named for Colonel William Fitzhugh (8 October 1761-December 29, 1839), a partner of Nathaniel Rochester and co-owner of the 100 Acre Tract that was the basis of first the village of Rochesterville, and later the city, of Rochester.

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North Fitzhugb St and West Main St (ca. 1909) Building on the left is the former Duffy-Powers Department store (later downtown campus of R.I.T.)

Fitzhugh was born in Calvert County, Maryland. During the American Revolution, he served in the 3rd Continental Dragoons (1779-1783), following which he moved to Hagerstown, Maryland, where he served as a director of the Hagerstown Bank (serving alongside Colonel Rochester and Charles Carroll). Among their common interests was investment in real estate. In 1803, he, Charles Carroll and Col. Rochester reviewed the territory from the High Falls to Hansford’s Landing (near Ridge Road and Lake Avenue) and saw the area’s potential for milling. He did not settle here permanently (as Rochester did eventually), but moved to Groveland in Livingston County. Fitzhugh’s remains are buried in Williamsburg Cemetery, Groveland, New York.

-Christopher Brennan

 

 

Published in: on July 11, 2017 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)  

The Erie Canal: A Bicentennial Profile

The recent transport of the Genesee Beer tanks along the Barge Canal gave new attention to a long-forgotten element of the state transportation system: New York’s canals. This amnesia is unfortunate as the canal system in general made New York State into the Empire State, and one canal in particular made Rochester into the Flour City: the Erie Canal.

Few roads existed in early New York. Farmers in western New York could not get their wares to the more populated eastern portion of the state and no means existed to transport goods to the new Northwest Territory (now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota).

The plan for a great east-west canal is commonly attributed to New York Governor Dewitt Clinton, but the idea did not originate with him and was even approved before his first gubernatorial term began on July 1, 1817. In 1784, engineer Christopher Colles proposed a canal between the Hudson River and Lake Ontario, but the idea went nowhere.

In 1807, a new proposal for a canal was offered, and the following year a survey was undertaken, which discussed potential route options. After 1808, debate began within the legislature, which was later tabled during the War of 1812. The final hurdles were overcome through the support of Clinton (who was a member of the Erie Canal Commission as of 1810).  Funding for construction of the canal received final approval April 15, 1817.

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Winter Scene: Skating on the Erie Canal, ca. 1874.

Construction of “Clinton’s Ditch” (as it was known) began July 4, 1817. Initial efforts involved the portion between the Hudson River through the Mohawk Valley to Utica, which opened to traffic in the fall of 1820. As the work commenced on the portion between Utica and Buffalo, debate began again, as the 1817 legislation did not provide for a route past the Seneca River.

Questions surrounded whether the western portion of the canal would go through Canandaigua (to the south) or Rochester (to the north)? The ultimate selection of the Rochester route meant that the village became a manufacturing center; its flour, spirits and machine tools could now be transported elsewhere with ease.  Within eleven years of its opening, Rochester grew from a village to a city.

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Crew and Passengers of A Boat in an Erie Canal Lock, 1870

Contrary to popular opinion, Rochester’s portion was not built by Irish labor — at least, not initially. The first contractor for the canal was a man named William Britton, who had previously constructed the Auburn Prison. His idea was to use 150 convicts to hew stone for the aqueduct over the Genesee River (what is today Broad Street between the Public Library and the Blue Cross Arena). Some people objected to the use of convicts for such a purpose, fearing the “the sounds of curses and profanities” would pour into the ear of youth and other innocent onlookers.

A bigger problem, however, was security. Barely a monthly after aqueduct construction began, seven convicts escaped from their barracks. A month later, another five convicts escaped; four were recaptured, but one escaped for good. It was only the recurring problem of escaping prisoners that encouraged the contractors to draw on the labors of the newly arrived Irish.

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Erie Canal Aqueduct, 1855 (now Broad Street, between South Ave. and Exchange St.

The canal was completed on October 26, 1825. Rochester’s portion of the canal opened two years earlier and closed in 1919, when the old canal was abandoned for the newly constructed Barge Canal. Most of the old Erie Canal beds are now paved over and used for automobile traffic (e.g. Broad Street, Interstate 490, etc.), but the diligent observer occasionally can find the old bed and locks. During this bicentennial year, spare a thought for the watery highway that raised Rochester to prominence.

-Christopher Brennan

 

 

Published in: on July 3, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Caught one more time up on Dewey Avenue

Have you ever wondered why Dewey Avenue looks the way it does?

Why, for instance, does the street jut out at a diagonal slant from Lyell Avenue before heading due North when it hits Emerson Street?

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Googlemaps, 2017.

And what on earth accounts for the jog or, “dog leg,” at the street’s intersection with Driving Park Avenue?

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Googlemaps, 2017.

What exactly were the people in charge of planning the road thinking?

As it happens, the city section of what we now know as Dewey Avenue was originally three separate streets, with three distinct names. The road has only existed in its current incarnation since the early 1900s.

The tale of how this came to be involves two different, but connected stories.

Anyone familiar with the Edgerton neighborhood (or at least the maps thereof), will know that most of the area’s “North-South” streets actually run “Northwest-Southeast”, rather than due north/south, as they do in the adjacent Lyell-Otis neighborhood. The unique direction these streets take reflects the old route of the Erie Canal, which the roads ran alongside for the better part of the 19th century.

West Street, as the southernmost section of Dewey Ave was originally known, ran directly beside the waterway, beginning at Lyell Avenue and ending at the campus of the State Industrial School (formerly the Western House of Refuge and now the site of Edgerton Park).

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West Street originally traveled alongside the Erie Canal from Lyell Avenue to the southern  border of the State Industrial School property. Emerson Street can be seen north of the school’s campus. City of Rochester Plat Map, 1888.

Over the years, various common council members made attempts to acquire a small portion of the State Industrial School’s campus in order to extend West Street northward, but the institution’s board of managers refused the request time and time again.

Eventually, the City appealed directly to the State (which owned the property) and permission was granted in 1895 to extend West Street to Emerson Street. From Emerson Street, commuters could continue up Thrush Street as far north as Driving Park Avenue.

Dewey-1900 West St

By the time this map was drawn in 1900, West Street had been extended through the State Industrial School campus and connected to the southern tip of Thrush Street via Emerson Street. City of Rochester Plat Map, 1900.

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Thrush Street connected West Street from Emerson Street up to Driving Park Ave which lies at the top of this map. City of Rochester Plat Map, 1888.

The City had convinced the authorities in question that such an extension was in the best interests of all involved.

It was certainly in the interests of the management of the Rochester Driving Park, whose location at the corner of Driving Park Avenue and The Boulevard had heretofore only been accessible from the center of the city by a number of indirect routes.

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The Rochester Driving Park, at the corner of Driving Park Ave and The Boulevard. The northern tip of Thrush Street can be seen at the bottom of the map, just west of the Boulevard below Driving Park Ave. Rochester Plat Map, 1888.

 

The Rochester Driving Park, which featured  horse races and bicycle races and hosted traveling circuses and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, experienced a heydey in the 1870s and 1880s, but had begun to dip in popularity and profits by the 1890s, so the opening of the new thoroughfare in 1895 was undoubtedly welcome.

Three years later, in 1898, Alderman Selye of the 10th Ward, proposed to rename the street that formed the park’s eastern boundary–known simply as The Boulevard–to Dewey Avenue. The motion, intended to honor the recent victory of Admiral George Dewey in the Spanish-American War, met with unanimous approval.

The following February, Alderman Selye proposed the consolidation of the former Boulevard with Thrush Street and West Street, all under the name of Dewey Avenue.

This motion did not move as swiftly. While Thrush Street was renamed and “connected” to Dewey Avenue in 1899, it wouldn’t be until 1906 that West Street was similarly rechristened, thanks in part to a feud between two Aldermans of neighboring wards (since part of the street lay outside the 10th ward).

By this time, the Rochester Driving Park (the subject of a future blog post) had been sold and converted into building lots. The jarring jog at the “intersection” of Dewey and Driving Park serves as a reminder of the once popular park’s southeastern boundary.

 

Dewey-1910 driving park tract map

By 1910, the Rochester Driving Park tract already featured several homes on its newly laid out streets. And the former Boulevard, which formed the former park’s eastern boundary, had been renamed Dewey Avenue. City of Rochester Plat Map, 1910.

 

-Emily Morry

 

Published in: on June 20, 2017 at 3:09 pm  Comments (1)  

“I Find the Board Have Granted”: Jonathan Child (January 30, 1785-October 27, 1860)

Professional historians study history, in part, because the past can tell us much about recurring issues and current events. To be sure, this often means learning as much from history’s mistakes as from its successes.

For instance, Rochester’s first mayor, Jonathan Child, might serve as a case study in how not to deal with controversial issues. We have already seen in previous blog posts how the temperance movement arose in the 1820s and the passions that centered around it. As the first mayor of the new city of Rochester, Jonathan Child had to negotiate the controversy within the young community. He chose to do so in a most unusual way.

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Jonathan Child, ca 1835-1850.

Born in Lyme, New Hampshire in 1785, Child moved to Utica, New York around 1805 and five years later moved to Charlotte. During the War of 1812, he fought in the Battle of Fort Erie, attaining the rank of Major. Following the war, he resided in Bloomfield (Ontario County), where he met and married  Sophia Eliza Rochester (November 29, 1793-March 3, 1850), eldest daughter of city founder Nathaniel Rochester. With Sophia, he had nine children.

By 1820, Child had relocated to Rochester, where he opened a store at Four Corners (West Main and State Streets). After the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, he ran a line of packet and freight boats, and a decade later organized and built the Tonawanda Railroad, Rochester’s first steam line. He served as a trustee of the village of Rochester beginning in 1827, as well as a trustee of the first bank in Rochester in 1834.

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Jonathan Child House, 37 South Washington Street, built ca 1837. Today site of Tango Cafe Dance Studio

On April 28, 1834 Rochester received its charter as a city. Less than two months later on, June 9, 1834, the Rochester Common Council appointed Jonathan Child to serve as Rochester’s first mayor for a one-year term. In that term, Child strove to restrain the pro-alcohol forces in the city, opposing the granting of liquor licenses. The result of his effort brought the election of several Democrats to the Common Council who opposed his Whig party temperance agenda. When the new Council met in June 1835, Child was re-elected mayor, but the Council also authorized granting liquor licenses. Child was caught between a rock and a hard place because as mayor he had to sign the licenses. We will let Child explain the predicament and his solution:

“On my return from the city of New York … I find … that the new Board have granted a large number of tavern and grocery licenses. Some of these seem to me to have been obtained under the name of tavern licenses, in circumstances directly contravening the intention and letter of the legislative enactments upon the subject. Some of them also have been granted to persons to whom a similar privilege had been refused, on satisfactory personal grounds, by the previous Board. … I am constrained to act according to my own solemn convictions of moral duty and estimation of legal right. … When I find myself so situated in my official station as to be obligated either on the one hand to violate these high obligations, or on the other to stand in opposition to the declared wishes of the large majority of the Board, and through them of their constituents – my valued friends and fellow citizens — I dare not retain the public station which exposes me to this unhappy dilemma. … I therefore now most respectfully resign into your hands the office of mayor of the city of Rochester.”   

Child resigned from office on June 23, 1834 and, in the words of former City Historian Blake McKelvey, “Total abstinence lost out, and Rochester was never able to satisfy the desires of its temperance advocates.”

 

-Christopher Brennan

Published in: on June 13, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Rochesterville and the War of 1812

 

Careful readers of previous posts will note that Hamlet Scrantom (1773?-10 April 1850) settled in Rochester and moved into his new home on July 4, 1812. History buffs will know that the War of 1812 began only 16 days before, June 18, 1812, and the treaty ending the conflict was signed December 24, 1814. The more well-known battles of the war – such as Fort McHenry (Baltimore) and New Orleans – took place far from the area, but most encounters occurred in the frontier between the United States and Canada. Given that the war overlapped with the earliest dates of settlement on the Genesee, as well as the village’s proximity to the Canadian frontier, what impact did the war have on the new hamlet of Rochesterville?
 

On May 14, 1814, Sir James Yeo of the British Navy appeared offshore by the mouth of the Genesee River with a fleet of his ships. Rumor had it they were there to burn the Main Street Bridge, which could be used to deploy American troops to other theaters of conflict.

Having heard of a raid on Oswego eight days earlier by this same fleet, and believing the young settlement was the next target, 300 men and boys formed themselves into a local militia, drawing on troops from Rochesterville, Greece, Pittsford, and other nearby communities. The militia occupied an elevated spot near Lake Ontario, where they could observe the maneuvers of the British fleet.

Eventually a boat set off from Yeo’s ship with a flag of truce. Francis Brown (Rochesterville’s first mayor and Brown Street’s namesake) was chosen to lead a delegation down to the water’s edge to hear the enemy’s demands. It was later reported that Brown addressed the landing party as follows, “I say, hello mister! You don’t come on this ground ‘til I know what you are after! So just stay in the boat and say your say out!”

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James Lucas Yeo, early 19th century portrait.

The commander demanded the surrender of the militia’s stores (i.e., supplies, most likely flour, pork, and whisky) or risk destruction of the area. He also noted that if public property in the area was surrendered, private property would be respected. He then produced a paper signed by the citizens of Oswego that said the United States government had left a large quantity of stores and munitions in Oswego, but the residents of the town would not risk their lives to protect it.

Obviously, the British hoped the capitulation of their neighbors to the east would serve as a precedent for the Genesee region. Brown noted that he had to consult his superiors and then left. Upon his return, he noted, “I am ordered by the general to tell you we shall keep the stores until the King shall send a force sufficient to take it away. So, if you want them badly, you must get them the best way you can.” The British emissaries thereupon returned to their ship.

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Fair Jeanne, an 1812-Replica Tall Ship arriving at Port of Rochester

Like Civil War Confederate General John Bankhead Magruder 48 years later, Brown and his colleagues then put on a display that left the invaders flummoxed. The militia marched off to the left into the brush and marched around to the right. They emerged from the brush and appeared atop the hill in a different order than before, so that it appeared from a distance to be a new company of soldiers. They marched off again and another body of men appeared in front when they came to another part of the hill. These men too marched off and disappeared.

The maneuvers continued until the British thought there was a large army of combatants awaiting them. The British fired a few random shots (to no avail) and then sailed away.  Thus ended Rochesterville’s contribution to the “Second War of American Independence!”
 

-Christopher Brennan

 

 

Published in: on June 6, 2017 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  

Radical Routes: Emma Goldman’s Rochester

Most local history buffs know that the Flower City was the erstwhile home of noted anarchist, Emma Goldman, but what is perhaps less known are the spaces and places that informed her Rochester existence.

Many of the streets and sites that Goldman once frequented in Rochester have since been radically transformed. The near northeast neighbourhoods that she and other recent Jewish immigrants called home in the late 1800s and early 1900s became prime candidates for urban renewal initiatives during the last third of the twentieth century. But some traces of Goldman’s Rochester roots remain.

Born in 1869, in what is now Lithuania to an Orthodox Jewish family, Emma Goldman relocated to Rochester with her sister Helena in the winter of 1886. As Goldman later recalled in her autobiography, Living My Life:

“We had heard that Rochester was the “Flower City” of New York, but we arrived there on a bleak and cold January morning.”

The pair joined their sister Lena, who had already settled on Rochester’s northeast side and for a time boarded at 120 Kelly Street, near Hudson Avenue. Their parents, Abraham and Taube, arrived to town at the end of 1886, and made a home on St Joseph Street (now Joseph Avenue).

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120 Kelly Street, just west of Hudson Ave, City of Rochester Plat Map, 1888.

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The row of homes including 120 Kelly Street was later torn down and replaced with the Holland Townhouses in the late 1960s.

The Kelly Street residence was a ways away from Emma’s first place of employment, Garson, Meyer & Co., on North Saint Paul Street. The clothing company, like others in the local garment industry, employed countless Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Garson, Meyer & Co was located in the Nash Building at 39 North Saint Paul Street, seen here in this circa 1965 photo.

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The site today.

Emma instinctively drew comparisons between the Garson & Meyer factory and her cousin’s glove-making operation in Russia:

“The rooms were large, bright and airy. One had elbow space. There were none of those ill-smelling odours that used to nauseate me in our cousin’s shop,” she noted in her autobiography, “Yet the work here was harder, and the day, with only half an hour for lunch, seemed endless. The iron discipline forbade free movement…and the constant surveillance of the foreman weighed like a stone on my heart.”

The stifling environment and inequitable wages made an indelible mark on Emma’s conscience. When not toiling at the Garson & Meyer’s (and later Rubinstein’s) Factory, Goldman further fueled her political leanings by attending the weekly Sunday meetings of a German socialist group at Germania Hall at 424 North Clinton Avenue.

 

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Germania Hall, City of Rochester Plat Map, 1888.

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The site today: Alvin Wesley Child Development Center of the Baden Street Settlement

Per Goldman, “the gatherings were generally uninteresting, but they offered an escape from the grey dullness of my Rochester existence. There one heard, at least, something different from the everlasting talk about money and business, and one met people of spirit and ideas.”

As the recollections from her autobiography make clear, Goldman’s impressions of Rochester were less than stellar, and she left her family’s adopted hometown for New York City in 1889, just ten months after marrying a man who had also left much to be desired.

Goldman returned to Rochester on numerous occasions in the ensuing years after attaining both fame and infamy as an anarchist activist and writer.

Her skills as an orator drew packed audiences at Germania Hall as well as the Labor Lyceum on North St Paul Street.

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The Labor Lyceum as it appeared in the early twentieth century.

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580 St Paul Street today is now home to the Pentecostal Miracle Deliverance Church.

These speaking engagements had the added bonus of permitting Emma to make semi-regular visits to her parents, siblings and beloved nieces and nephews (among them sister Helena’s son, violin virtuoso, David Hochstein).

Goldman’s parents, Abraham and Taube, and the Hochsteins remained in the Joseph Avenue neighborhood for many years. Her father operated a furniture store on Joseph Ave (175 Joseph and later, 255 Joseph) in the years before his death in 1909.

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Abraham Goldman’s furniture store at the corner of Joseph Avenue and Stepheny’s Place (a now defunct street in between Kelly and Baden streets).

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Approximate site of the store is now home to Wilson Commencement Park.

Emma’s other siblings, like many former Jewish inhabitants of the 7th Ward, eventually left the area for Rochester’s southeast quadrant. Brother Herman lived on both Laburnum Crescent and Field Street in the Upper Monroe neighborhood and sister Lena found a home on Caroline Street in the Southwedge.

Goldman’s regular sojourns to Rochester came to a halt after she was deported in 1919 for obstructing the WWI draft.  She made two trips to the Flower City fifteen years later, during which she gave two lectures and stayed with Lena’s family on Caroline Street.

The first speech was presented to the Rochester City Club at the Powers Hotel on March 17, 1934.

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The Powers Hotel at the Northeast corner of W. Main Street and Fitzhugh Street.

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The Executive Building today.

She gave her final talk in Rochester at Convention Hall on April 15th, 1934.

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Convention Hall as it appeared in 1914.

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The building is now home to Geva Theatre.

At her penultimate Rochester lecture, Goldman attempted to clarify her oft misconstrued mission, stating that above all she desired, “To make people thinkers. Ninety-nine percent of people don’t think. I don’t want converts to my credo—I want thinkers. I’m not an agitator—just an educator.”

 

-Emily Morry

Published in: on May 31, 2017 at 2:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

John Barleycorn Must Die: Alcohol and Temperance in Early Rochester

“There were three men came out of the west, their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.”

– Opening of “John Barley Corn Must Die,” traditional English folksong

We saw in an earlier post how drunken revelers disrupted theatrical presentations in early Rochester. Many may not be aware that distilleries were  some of the first industries in this area. Although early Rochester is often seen as a wheat-growing and flour-milling area, many local farmers found growing corn and rye for sale to distilleries more profitable.

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Wolcott Distillery (Clarissa Street, Rochester). Company founded in 1827. Building built in 1840 and razed in 1917.

Alcohol of various kinds had a prominent place in early Rochester. Taverns were among the first local businesses. In an era before hotels and motels, taverns served as boarding houses and restaurants for travelers passing through the area. They were also community gathering centers, where neighbors could drink, share news, tell stories and generally entertain themselves.

Liquor was considered indispensable to daily life. A jug of rum, whiskey, beer or other spirits was commonly passed around while raising a roof, harvesting a crop or working on other community projects. Troops in the Revolutionary War were frequently given a ration of 1 gill (4.16 fluid ounces) of whiskey per day or 1 ½ gill (6.25 fluid ounces) of rum per day. By comparison, most responsible contemporary drinkers of hard liquor only consume 1 or 2 fluid ounces per day. In areas where the water quality was questionable (giving rise to typhoid, malaria, and other diseases), the manufacture and consumption of alcoholic beverages (involving, as it does, boiling of water as an essential step) was considered healthier. In a time before the wide availability of prescription drugs, alcohol was even considered of medicinal value, for which many local grocers sold ardent spirits.

As we have seen, however, some people were more prodigal in their use of alcohol than others, leading to disruption of public activities and arrests for public drunkenness. By the late 1820s, public tolerance of the use of alcohol began to change. In 1827, the Rochester Presbytery (following the example of its national body, the Presbyterian Church) passed a resolution that “temperate use of ardent spirits … is to be avoided and discouraged.”  The following year the first public meeting was held at the Monroe County Court House to discuss the issue. Dr. Joseph Penney of the First Presbyterian Church urged his fellow clergy to ban social drinking altogether from church gatherings. In 1829, there were 14 grocers on the east side of the Genesee River, 12 of whom sold alcohol. The following year, only 6 did so.

The number of grocers on the west side selling alcohol was not reported, but many (including Austin Steward), voluntarily refused to sell alcohol, even though the profits from such sales were high. William Bloss dumped alcohol from his East Avenue tavern into the canal. P.G. Jones got rid of the alcohol from his bar in the National Hotel and reopened it as a temperance house. Several other temperance houses opened as well. Although they were frequented by temperance advocates, these alcohol-free establishments’ profits were lower than conventional taverns.

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William Bloss (1795-1863) Temperance Advocate, Abolitionist and Women’s Suffrage Advocate

Of course, drinkers, tavern owners and other citizens did not necessarily agree with the growing temperance and abstention movements of the era. Debate over the role of alcohol in national and civic life would continue throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the passage of the 18th amendment (which prohibited the manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors”) in 1919 and its repeal 14 years later with the 21st amendment.

-Christopher Brennan

Published in: on May 23, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Passing the Time in Rochesterville: Leisure Activities in the Emerging Community

Think for a moment of the pastimes available to modern Rochesterians: sporting events, concerts, theaters, parks, libraries, museums, movies, television programs, and streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. The leisure options are almost limitless.

How did residents of an emerging 19th century village like Rochester relax?

Initially, they made their own fun. One of the earliest accounts we have for leisure activities in Rochesterville is a narrative that describes the citizens jumping (presumably in long jump contests) and racing across the Main Street Bridge.

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Conclusion of a Foot Race (1913) at Genesee Valley Park

They also indulged in tugs of war. Instead of using a rope, however, the rivals used a long wooden pole, with the loser being forced to cross a predetermined line.

As the village grew, and particularly after the Erie Canal opened (permitting greater access to the village), visiting theatrical companies came to town. Like travelling circuses, they often put up temporary shelters for their productions. As the community grew further, and turnout justified the expense, permanent theaters were established (initially leased, later purchased or built from scratch).

The productions often stressed melodramas (i.e., plays emphasizing sensational situations that appealed to the emotions rather than subtle character development). In these plays, characters were often stereotyped, being either totally good or totally evil.

Some melodramas had local themes (e.g., “The Vale of the Genesee, or The Big-Tree Chief”); some of them did not (e.g., “Therese, The Orphan of Geneva”). Also popular were farces, absurd or nonsensical situation comedies involving elaborate plot twists, and ethnic and physical humor (e.g., “The Irishman in London”). Where appropriate, the productions included songs, either as part of the production or during intermission.

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Empire Theatre ca. 1900 Featuring Productions of Farce, Melodrama, Vaudeville and Burlesque

Of course, not everyone was happy with these productions. A  letter to the editor of a local newspaper describing the interaction between audience and players provides a clue to another leisure activity of early Rochester. The letter, signed only “A Citizen,” complains these productions are “an evil that cannot be too highly spoken against.”

He notes “the most ridiculous and disgraceful raillery” being carried on by the audience, spouting “the most vile and wanton language.” Due to the noise of the crowd, many others in the audience had trouble hearing the play and left early.

What was the reason behind the unruly behavior? The Citizen attributes it to their being drunk. The pit in the theater was where the least expensive seats were situated, and  it also included a bar where liquor could be sold throughout the performance. To hear the Citizen tell it, many came to drink and not to hear the play. Debate about the use and abuse of alcohol would continue to be a source of contention in Rochester until the end of Prohibition.

 

-Christopher Brennan

 

Published in: on May 16, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

“Genesee Fever” and other Illnesses in Early Rochester

One of the greatest hardships to be overcome in early Rochester was illness. We have already seen how the building of Hamlet Scrantom’s first home was delayed because its construction crew fell ill. This was no doubt due to “Genesee fever,” a common umbrella term for a variety of maladies that came with accompanying fevers. Most likely the cause was either typhoid or malaria.

In April and May 1812 (the time was Scrantom was moving to his new home) typhoid was making an appearance in the Genesee Country. Later that summer, dysentery was common. The following year, typhoid recurred, affecting principally the lungs and the brain of those afflicted. As terrible as that sounds, the latter condition was commonly less fatal than typhoid, which affected the throat alone. Symptoms included chills, pain in the head, back, loins and side; and coughing up blood.

By 1820, other illnesses had made their way to the area. These included pleurisy (a form of pneumonia involving inflammation of the lining between the lungs and the chest wall), measles, whooping cough and a reappearance of dysentery.  Tuberculosis (then known as “consumption” or “the King of Terrors”) was a common visitor. So too was smallpox (despite the fact that even then a vaccine was available).

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1832 Handbill for preventing Cholera

The aforementioned illnesses affected individuals, rather than the community as a whole. The first major ailment commonly seen as an epidemic occurred in 1832, when Rochester was visited by cholera. Death was a common result. In the first few months of the epidemic, 57 people died of the disease, and in July of that year, 11 deaths were reported in one day alone. The same thing happened in August. Infants and children were common victims. One thousand people (10% of the population) fled the village to avoid the disease, and those with nowhere to go locked themselves in their homes. Normal village life temporarily came to a stop. By the time the scourge had passed in September, 400 cases had been reported and 118 deaths had been attributed to the disease.

Medical practice at the time was rather primitive, and by modern standards almost barbaric. Bleeding was not uncommon. Bleeding involved opening a vein in the forearm or neck (either with a needle or leeches) and releasing enough blood until the patient fainted. Another common treatment was administering an emetic (a substance to induce vomiting) or a laxative. One did not want to have to be under a doctor’s care in early Rochester!

Before the advent of modern medicines and vaccines, the most effective method for dealing with illness was prevention. The marshy land around the village was drained (depriving mosquitos of breeding grounds). Strict ordinances governing trash and latrines were imposed. When individual cases of communicable diseases were uncovered, the person was “quarantined” in an isolated house away from the village. Concerns about the local water supply were addressed by public support for digging private wells. Despite these precautions, cholera and other diseases continued to be a frequent visitor to Rochester until the 20th century.

Christopher Brennan

Published in: on May 9, 2017 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment